Online privacy and security have become more critical with the rise of ubiquitous internet access. We accept that our private browsing data is accessible to many third parties. For example, U.S. internet service providers (ISPs) sell user data without consent – meaning that we lose our online privacy as soon as we connect to the internet. How can you keep your privacy while still accessing the internet? A virtual private network (VPN) may be a great tool to have in your online security toolkit.
What privacy threats exist on the internet?
These are some of the biggest concerns internet users have about their privacy:
- Snooping or spying: More internet users are growing concerned with how our data is being collected, sold and used for other purposes, including advertising. Companies like Google and Facebook can afford to offer their services for free because they collect and use their account holders' data to make their ads more personal. These companies track your data no matter where you live, and while ISPs in many countries claim they do not collect user data, you can be sure that they do monitor the sites you visit.
- Stealing information: Sensitive financial information – credit card numbers and passwords – may be stolen from under-protected networks. You are more susceptible to being hacked when you access the internet from a public Wi-Fi network, which is unsecured. Hackers can usually access any device connected to an unsecured network.
- MIM attacks: Man-in-the-middle (MIM) attacks involve intercepting communication between two devices to steal the information.
- Adware: These legal add-ons to software downloads collect your data – with your consent, as it's in the fine print – and use the information for advertising purposes.
To minimize the chances of your information being stolen or a hacked network, consider using a virtual private network (VPN). Here, we'll explain what a VPN does and doesn't do, and how you can choose the right VPN network for your needs.
What is a VPN?
A VPN can serve as a solution to data privacy issues. Large companies first used VPN technology to allow remote workers to access secure servers. When inside a closed, secure network, you don't have to worry about being hacked. However, if the network you use is open (it has an unencrypted connection to the internet), anyone from outside can access the data being exchanged. [Read related article: What Type of VPN Is Best for Your Business?]
How VPNs work to protect your privacy
VPNs establish a direct connection between a user and a VPN server. This connection is then encrypted, creating an invisible internet link stretching from your computer to the VPN server. You may be inside a closed, private network that is encrypted, but you can still freely browse the internet. VPNs keep your connection safe, and only those with access to the unique decryption key will have access. In other words, a VPN is the perfect tool for keeping your work private.
How VPNs protect your location
In addition to keeping your connection encrypted, a VPN can offer other benefits. You can access location-specific services with a VPN connection – other sites will only see the IP address of the VPN server instead of your own. If this server is in another country, that's where the IP address will originate.
This helps if you live in a country offering poor streaming content choices, or where certain websites – such as YouTube, Twitter or Google search – are blocked. A VPN will get you access to these sites by masking your IP address. However, if you want to access other countries' IP addresses, make sure that your VPN of choice has servers located in multiple countries.
A VPN connection is also a great privacy tool when accessing the internet from a public wireless network. By accessing a network via VPN, no one can view your confidential information.
What are the limitations of a VPN service?
VPNs are not synonymous with total internet privacy. There are both pros and cons of using VPNs. While they are beneficial tools when used correctly, it's essential to understand their limitations. These are some of the important ones:
1. VPNs do not stop data collection.
While virtual private networks safeguard your privacy by keeping ISPs and hackers from viewing the sites you visit, your email address and Google search history, they cannot stop the websites from collecting your data.
If you visit Facebook via a VPN and log in to your account, Facebook still collects your data. Once logged on, you will see ads for products, services and sites linked to the IP address of the VPN server you are using. For example, if you use a VPN server located in France, you will receive ads for Amazon.fr, French websites and other services located in that country.
2. VPNs do not protect private data.
Although a VPN can stop Google from tracking your location, it cannot prevent it from collecting and using your search queries, or seeing your browsing history on your Chrome or Google account.
3. VPNs may slow down your internet.
Part of utilizing a VPN is its rerouting and encryption, which takes more time as your device sends and receives information over the internet. While it won't slow to a crawl, it may slow down enough to be noticeable or make certain activities – such as sending large files or streaming – more difficult.
4. VPNs are not security guarantees.
It can be easy to be lulled into a false sense of security with a VPN. It's precisely when you let your guard down that your information becomes vulnerable. Even if you have a VPN installed, you should continue to use internet security best practices. This includes not sharing sensitive information over unsecured networks; utilizing complicated passwords that have a lengthy, random mix of numbers, letters and characters; and not using the same password for multiple accounts or websites.
Choosing the right VPN service
Before you choose a top VPN service, you should know they are divided into two large groups: free and paid VPNs. Free always sounds good, but some of the free VPN services allow ads while others collect your data. So, research is advised.
Free vs. paid VPNs
The main weakness for most free VPNs lies in the limited data they offer; therefore, they cannot be used for streaming sites or for downloading torrent files. Most free VPN solutions offer paid tiers, which come with plenty of bonus features that, in most cases, ultimately justify the price. For example, paid VPN services often provide more servers that users can connect to, with much faster connection speeds. Also, by using a paid VPN service, you can rest assured your browsing data won't be used for serving you targeted ads.
- IP security: Also called Internet Protocol security or IPsec, this is a framework for securely exchanging information on the internet.
- Transport Layer Security (TLS): TLS, formerly known as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), provides security between your web browser and internet provider. No information, especially sensitive information, should be submitted into a browser without a TSL or SSL certificate.
- Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP): Established by Microsoft, this is a network standard for connecting to VPN networks.
- Layer 2 Forwarding (L2F) Protocol: Established by Cisco Systems, this network is standard for connecting to VPN networks.
- Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP): This protocol merges PPTP from Microsoft with L2F from Cisco Systems. It is considered the best in the industry to combine the two.
- Secure Shell (SSH): Also known as a secure socket shell, SSH allows for secure remote login between computers.
- OpenVPN protocol: This establishes a gateway between the VPN client and the VPN server.
The most popular choices used by most VPN services include L2TP combined with IP security, which together makes one extremely secure encryption. Another preferred choice is OpenVPN, which is a highly secure protocol that works on any device and any operating system. Most services allow users to pick a protocol they want to use, so we recommend choosing one of these.
Today, practically all sites are protected with an SSL certificate and almost every VPN solution comes with 256-bit AES encryption, which is highly secure. If the VPN service you're considering for your small business doesn't offer 256-bit AES encryption, skip it.
Desktop vs. mobile
You should also ensure that your VPN can be set up on all devices you access, not just your desktop or your laptop. If you plan on using a VPN on your mobile device, which is recommended, make sure that the VPN service includes a mobile app.
Most premium services offer a free trial period, so take advantage of this and pay attention to the connection speed. Test the service for the duration of this trial period, because some of them offer variable connection speeds that can slow down during busy hours. Also, choose a service that has servers in different countries, as the connection will be slower the farther you are from the VPN server.
Use this knowledge to select a VPN service wisely, and take comfort that your privacy will be protected.
Aigerim Berzinya contributed to the writing and research in this article.